Contact Info

Friday, February 23, 2018

Relief: A Trip to Maui

Sometimes things don't go our way. Work is crazy, the weather sucks, it's dark, cold and gloomy and spring seems so far away it doesn't feel we'll live long enough to see it. What do you do when that happens? Eat more? Binge watch Breaking Bad (again)? Pull the covers over your head and set the alarm for April?

After the October fires, Mark was buried in non-stop fire recovery at work and getting more and more exhausted and irritable. He was stressed and over-tired, and it was quickly turning into depression and hopelessness. The only thing that seemed to cheer him was talking with our friends about upcoming camping trips, but the earliest of plans were for May of 2018, a whole 6 months away. We needed something more immediate, something to look forward to, somewhere warm and sunny and relaxed. The remedy was obvious.

Hawaii's state fish

Calling the Hawaiian Islands paradise might seem like a cliche, but only to those who've never been. It is without doubt the most relaxing and enjoyable place I have ever visited. A year round temperature range of 72 to 85 degrees, surrounded by warm ocean water and coral reefs teaming with tropical fish. Sleeping with the windows open and feeling the trade winds blow over you as the sound of waves lull you to sleep is truly the best way to relax. Sure, it's expensive, but every now and then there is nothing else that will do.

Once we made up our minds to go we sat down and made reservations late one December night in a frenzy of web searches and adrenaline that ended with a high five and sigh of relief (pro tip: never book your flight until you've reserved a rental unit, that was a nailbiter!). Oh, and a condo on the beach in Maui for early February.
Hawaii Checklist:
Dog sitter
Airline tickets
Airport parking
Rental car
Rental condominium
Rental snorkeling gear
Snorkeling excursion to the island of Lanai

As soon as the details were settled, the anticipation set in. Mark set a countdown clock on his computer at work and sent me screenshots twice a day. We debated getting a new underwater camera. We toyed with getting new swimsuits. We were packed two weeks before our departure. It seemed to take forever, but the day finally came. We took off for the airport at 4:30 on a Saturday morning, where we made it in time to have the ceremonial over-priced Bloody Mary at the airport bar before our plane loaded.

We spent a glorious week tooling around the island of Maui in our rented jeep, visiting all the best snorkeling spots we had found on the last trip and finding new ones, always finishing the day at Ululani's Shave Ice shop for some frosty treats. We went out to dinner a few times, but mostly cooked for ourselves on the shared barbecue grills at the condo (food there is very expensive, and a nice dinner out for two with drinks and dessert can easily put you back $200).
Food trucks are another option.
This one was excellent; a full day of snorkeling makes for a hungry belly.

Although the Big Island of Hawaii is our favorite, we chose Maui because of the proximity to the humpback whales. Every year between January and March, hundreds of humpback whales go to Hawaii to have their young and raise them until they are big and strong enough to go to feeding grounds in Alaska and the Bering Sea. It's an incredible sight to see the whales breaching and tail slapping, right from the beach. We saw them from above out the airplane window on our flight in, watched them from our condo's lawn, heard them "talk" while snorkeling. It's amazing, exciting and humbling to see these giants out there, especially up close from a small boat.

Snorkeling is really our main pursuit when in Hawaii. Mark is SCUBA certified and has been diving in the frigid waters off our coast since he was a teen, but that experience is nothing compared to the tropical waters of the South Pacific. The water is clear and warm, the fish are more colorful and plentiful, and come on, sea turtles? whales? How can you beat that? We grabbed a quick breakfast and were on the beach most mornings by 8:00am, donning our fins and masks and running into the surf. We came away with hundreds of pictures; I won't bore you with all of them, but here are a few:

An eel hunts for lunch in the reef.
The reefs around Maui are teaming with fish. Every day we saw something new.
These urchins actually eat into the coral, creating weird patterns.
Convict fish
A Spotted Moray eel tries to intimidate the camera
A Boxfish wanders around
Mark chased this White Tipped Reef shark trying to get a better photo.
He assured me they weren't too dangerous.
I guess he was right, since he still has all his limbs.
We found this large conch laying on the reef floor.
It looked like something had torn it from it's moorings, but the snail was still inside.
Here's the view from the top.
Green Sea turtles were everywhere. Being a protected endangered species, you're not supposed to bother them. That said, they have really bad eyesight so sometimes they swim right up to you. I was once rear-ended by one — scared the crap out of me.

A little video of a curious green sea turtle that swam by us. Listen carefully and you'll hear the humpback whales talking in the background:

We splurged on a boat trip around Lanai, the closest in the Hawaiian island chain to Maui. Lanai is much less crowded, and has some stunning sea cliffs and coral reefs surrounding it. The only way to get there is an expensive plane ride (or private jet), ferry, or one of these excursions. Although the wind didn't cooperate that day, we did get in some snorkeling and a front row seat to the whales.

See below for a short video taken from the boat. Sorry for the shaky camera work; the boat was tiny, the whales enormous, and the water rough:

The wind was really blowing that day. It made for a rough ride but dramatic photos.
The sea cliffs on the west side of Lanai are beautiful.
The north side of Lanai has many WWII ships that were intentionally grounded here when no longer needed.
The front of a concrete Liberty ship that broke free of it's moorings and ended up here.

The back. You can see how the waves have broken away the concrete, leaving the rusting rebar exposed.

About halfway through our trip, we received an email with a surprise message. We were being gifted a helicopter tour, something we had thought about doing before but could never justify the cost. Our excitement was confirmed from the moment we sat down in the front seat, the closest to a bird's eye view of the island you can get.

Our pilot Dylan was so laid back we worried he might be medicated. I think living in Hawaii will do that to a person; even Mark was relaxed about everything, including two trips during which his motion sickness could have been a real buzz kill (he was fine by the way, thanks to Bonine).

Our trip included a ride through the canyons of north Maui, then up the coast of Molokai. On our way across the channel between islands, we saw more whales and Dylan lowered and circled the helicopter so we could get a better look.

Although it is an expensive excursion, if you can swing it I highly recommend it. It really is a view of Hawaii you can't get any other way.

Dylan was kind enough to take our picture together.
Of course, the helicopter photobombed us.
Taking off from the Kahului heliport.
It was cloudy, but it made for a more dramatic photos.
The cliffs of Molokai are the tallest sea cliffs in the world,  some up to 3900'
Molokai is also home to a 25 mile long coral reef. Since the island is sparsely populated and gets comparatively few visitors, the reefs are in pristine condition. We are planning our next Hawaiian adventure there.
We landed on the north shore of Maui. Here Mark is talking with pilot Dylan about helicopters. Mark came away from this trip with a new goal: get a helicopter pilot license. God help me.
Here's a little video from the trip, flying along the cliffs of Molokai's north shore:

There are other things to do that don't involve swimming. We spent one rainy day walking around the Maui Ocean Center, a nice little aquarium. While it's geared for kids, we learned a lot talking with the workers about the difference between urchins types and asking about some of the fish we had seen snorkeling.
Of course Mark had to risk life and limb again, but made it out unscathed.
Maui Ocean Center
We also spent some time walking around the Kealia Pond Refuge. In the winter, this natural pond fills and attracts migrant birds and native shore birds. There's a new walkway that leads out across the pond, getting you closer to nesting sites and the birds themselves. It was a nice way to spend an afternoon.
The boardwalk had benches and information panels built along the way.
Black crown night heron hunt for small fish in the stream leading out to the ocean.
These white egrets are not native to the islands, but they're ubiquitous around Maui. You see them following the gardeners as they mow the lawns around the resorts, picking at the freshly mown grass for insects. It's amazing more don't get run over, they follow so closely.
The pond was full from all the rain Maui had gotten in the last few weeks.

We were rained out one day so we decided to take a little road trip to the Iao Valley State Monument. When I say rain, what I really mean is RAIN. Hawaii is surrounded by warm ocean water, and when the trade winds don't blow in their normal fashion, the clouds suck up moisture from the ocean and gather right over the island, where they unleash a torrent of water. The volcanic soil doesn't hold a lot, and the steep mountains funnel everything back down to the sea. The streams became rivers, the roads flooded over, and it was chaos that morning. But it was warm so it didn't stop us from running around in our shorts and t-shirts, giggling like school children. It also didn't hurt that we had rented a relatively high clearance jeep, so driving through the ever deepening puddles in the road was not a problem.

Iao Valley has a sad history. It was here that King Kamehameha fought a battle with the ruler of Maui. He brought a huge army and cannons, which he used to kill so many of the opposing forces the bodies dammed up the stream as the women and children watched from the cliffs above. Kamehameha eventually won, taking over control of Maui and eventually the entire Hawaiian island chain.

It's a pretty park, with gardens and demonstration plantings of taro. There's a little covered hut at the end of the trail in case you get caught in a rain storm. We made good use of it this trip.
There were waterfalls in every crevice of the park.
The streams were more like rivers that day.
The ravines of the valley were filled with rain clouds
The gardens, a little waterlogged.
Taro, up close
The Iao Needle

This trip was probably the most necessary thing we've ever spent hard earned money on. By the time we boarded the plane home we had shed every worry that had seemed so overwhelming when we left; Mark had plans to become a helicopter pilot, I had the outline of a roving bakery business going in my head and we were ready to sell the house and move to the islands. Perhaps not realistic, but a dream that will (hopefully) sustain us until the next time we make it back to the Hawaiian Islands.

A hui kaua (until we meet again)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2018: Do A Good Turn Daily

I got one of my favorite Christmas gifts of all time this year: a letter from my 12 year old father.

Hear me out.

After my father died, my Mom eventually moved into a smaller house. It didn't make sense for her to be living in a five bedroom home all by herself, and we thought it would be nice to have her closer to where her kids were living in case she needed anything. Unfortunately, having a five bedroom home meant five bedrooms (plus living, family and dining rooms and a large workshop) worth of stuff to pack. It was overwhelming at the time, but after many trips to Goodwill and a giant garage sale, we were able to fit her into the two bedroom home in which she now resides. During that process, whenever we came across anything sentimental that we couldn't bear to throw away, we tossed it into a "keeper" box. Then another. Pretty soon we had a stack of these boxes, but with no time to go through them they ended up in my brother's garage to be perused at another time.

That was in 2006.

For Christmas this year, my brother found something for each of us from those boxes and put it in our stockings. I received this letter:

Click to enlarge

My father was in the Boy Scouts throughout his childhood, and was shipped off to camp every year. I love this letterhead, and I love how my grandmother made out the envelope and put the (3 cent!) stamp on it to ensure her only child wrote to her. I also like how, instead of a date, he wrote "2nd day".

Here's the text:

Dear Mom and Dad,

Having wonderful time. Am on Kp today, food is good. Only two things I don't like dust and bugs. Here they change everything. I am now a neifight*. Am also in skunk patrol, troop two.

                     Your little stinker,

P.S. Write to me please.

(*Did he mean neophyte? Not sure.)

It kills me to read that he didn't like the dust and bugs, considering what he put us kids through during our childhoods: Annual autumn firewood gathering trips where we worked in the hot sun chopping down unwanted trees from his friends and co-workers orchards/ranches/backyards; camping out at the coast in the wind and sand; one particularly awful trip where we tried to sleep on the boat while moored in the Sacramento Delta, mosquitos swarming around our sweaty heads so thick that in the morning we found dead ones caked to our faces where we had swatted them in the night.

I know he was only twelve when he wrote this, and he probably missed his parents something fierce. I like his postscript: Write to me please. Something from home always makes things better.

2017 has been particularly trying. Disturbing trends in political discourse, some disappointing directions in public land management, and of course the fires that have disrupted so many parts of everyone's lives here. It's hard to find the bright side sometimes. This cheerful letter from 1950 and it's 3 cent stamp, with news of skunk patrols and dust and bugs, put a smile on my face. And at the very bottom, a motto I think we should all take to heart in the coming year:

Do a good turn daily.

Happy New Year everyone.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Afterburn: The Consequences of an Urban Wildfire

It's been several weeks since a fire tore through our city, destroying 2,800 homes and burning over 57 square miles of surrounding land. Living with the aftermath of a fire like this has put us all through a steep and traumatic learning curve.

The smell of smoke has now been replaced by the smell of ash. On a clear, dry day you catch a whiff on the wind and see it settle on the coffee table if the windows are open. After the rains, it smells strongly like a wet ashtray, kind of pungent and repugnant at the same time. I used to love the smell of rain. I don't so much anymore.

It's haunting to see block after block of destroyed homes. The only thing left standing in the neighborhoods that burned are the chimneys, the fire was so hot everything else was reduced to ash. Even the cars sort of melted into the ground: tires burned off the rims, glass windows melted and fused, interiors completely burned away. Driving through the streets is like driving through a graveyard, but one so raw and abandoned it's as if they forgot to bury the dead. It feels disrespectful to even look at the blackened ruins, the raw emotional loss of those who lost homes on full display.

Everyday, I drive by a mobile home park that was almost completely destroyed. Sadly, two people died there, unable to get out in time. The park has been there my whole life, tucked into the corner at the intersection of two busy streets, flanked by a hospital on one side and the highway at its back. It used to have a fence blocking the view from the street and lots of mature trees and shrubs along it's borders. It's strange to look across it now, only the twisted frames and burned out cars interrupting the view all the way to the highway traffic. I worry the owner will decide to sell the lot to retail developers. Where will our fixed income folks live?

We're learning that even something as hot as a wind-whipped wildfire can have a snowball effect. Having approximately 8,400 people suddenly become homeless puts a huge strain on a rental market that already only had about a 1% vacancy rate. While many people have been quite generous, opening their homes to victims, sharing extra rooms and food and beds, other rental owners have been quietly raising their rates.

Homes that were once vacation rentals were taken off the market and offered as a more permanent housing option. This, in combination with losing two of our biggest hotels to the flames, has reduced options for tourists. Now, even if we can convince tourists to come visit, there are far fewer places to stay while they're here.

In at least one instance I personally heard about, a couple that lost their home to the fire turned around and evicted the tenants from their rental home across town, and moved into that house until their burned home can be rebuilt. This put another family on the street, one that doesn't have the advantage of being able to apply to FEMA or insurance or any other agency since they were not burned out. I am not judging the landlords, I probably would have been forced to do the same in their shoes. It's just another example of the domino effect that seems to amplify the pain.

Traffic on the one highway through town has become a nightmare. A combination of people displaced by the fires moving out of town and now commuting to work and school, and side roads closed due to reconstruction and tree removal have created gridlock for weeks now. The fire burned about a mile of freeway guardrail posts, leaving the rails dangling and twisted. Traffic slows as people gawk at the destruction, and the work crews cutting dead trees and replacing the rails slows traffic even more. I work 8 miles from my home. Some days it takes me an hour door to door.

The fires took place in October, just at the start of our rainy season. The fire burned so hot (up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) it destroyed all but the biggest and most sturdy trees. Everything holding the soil in place is gone, so one of our major worries is mudslides. The other worry is pollution. When a home burns, so of course does all its contents. Think of all the cans of paint, fertilizer, cleaning products, plastics, medications, etc. that are laying around your house. Multiply that by 2800 then imagine trying to keep all the chemicals from washing into the creeks and rivers. The wood ash alone can clog a creek and kill all the critters living there. Crews went out and staked wattles (large tubes filled with hay) to try to keep hillsides from sliding and ash from washing into storm drains. During our last big downpour, the restricted flow caused by the wattles around the storm drains ended up flooding the streets.

Speaking of storm drains, in the newer housing neighborhoods in the hills, a modern plastic drainage system was used. The fire melted the drainage lines underground, and during the heavy rains opened up sinkholes and small mudslides when the water tried to find a route around the melted and sealed conduits. Underground cable lines also melted, and many of the power and cable networks will need to be replaced.

Mark's work was partially destroyed by the fire, and the rest of the buildings had smoke and water damage. He has been working seven days a week since, part of a team trying to coordinate a huge cleanup/recovery effort they never imagined they'd have to face. Everything—from the cubicle walls to the high tech clean room equipment—must be scrubbed, repaired/replaced, tested and brought back to production. One hundred and thirty of the 1200 employees lost their homes. Half of the employees have yet to go back to work, not having a place that's safe or functional enough to do their jobs. One bright spot in all this; they are all being paid throughout this process.

A couple of major retail stores and fast-food restaurants burned down. Those workers are not so lucky. Many are not only out of a home but out of a job as well. I'm not sure we'll recover soon, if at all, from the loss of this important sector of our population. How can a person making $11/hour pay for an apartment that's $1600/month (if they can even find one)? I have no doubt they will rebuild the two fancy hotels that burned down. I'm just not sure who's going to change the sheets.

Since tourism is down, so are the revenues of the remaining stores and restaurants. As we enter the holiday season, many of those that lost their homes don't have money for gifts and meals out. They have to use what resources they have to replace what they've lost, and must wait for insurance money to do that. This, in turn, is leading to less income for the workers who rely on tips and holiday jobs to get them through the season.

The magnitude of the homes that were lost will put a giant dent in the property tax revenues, the very taxes that support the fire departments we need to keep this from happening again. This fire cost an enormous amount of money to fight, and they are already in a deficit.

One of the worst side affects of the fire is the mental anguish it has caused. Already, one of the victims has committed suicide, right on the site of his burned home. I can see how the shock of losing everything you own, right before the holidays, and the daunting prospect of wading through years of rebuilding would be too much to take. The victim was 70 years old, at a point in life when things should be getting easier, not harder. Unfortunately I can see how this might happen again, although I really hope it doesn't.

Even those of us that haven't lost our homes are affected. There is an awful, haunted undercurrent to living here now. When going about our day to day business, our initial greeting has become "Are you ok? Do you have a home?" There's a little guilt to saying yes, we are fine, and a little untruth. No, we are not fine. We're traumatized. Each day is a little better, and some mornings it's not the first thing I think about. But then I drive to work, sitting in standstill traffic, staring at the homes and businesses that are no more and think, how did this happen?

Eventually, the ashes will be cleared and the homes will be rebuilt. The traffic will calm down, the wet ashtray smell will vanish and that nagging dry cough that developed after inhaling smoke for two weeks will subside. The undertone of sadness will fade, and things will settle into routine.

Somehow though, I don't think our routine will ever be exactly the same again.